Of Water and Beer


A St. Patrick's Day post about how some breweries are stepping up to protect our most precious asset. 

I like beer. All kinds of beers. Pales Ales, Red Ales, Brown Ales, India Pale Ales, Wheat Beers, Sour Beers, Lagers. Heck, I’ll even have the occasional Pilsner or Stout.


I also love water. Lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, ponds. I would probably love groundwater, if I could physically experience it.


I would like those two loves to coexist, without one compromising the other. I mean, it sure feels like a beer slowly consumed on the shores of a lake at sunset can underscore my appreciation and gratitude for water.


So, recently, when I was doing a course assignment to calculate my “virtual water footprint” for food and drink, I was pretty dismayed to learn how water intensive beer production is. 1L of beer takes about 240L of water to produce. That includes the water needed for everything involved in the production of beer--from the water needed to irrigate and grow grains and hops, to the water that goes into the actual brewing process.



That means if I drink an average of 3-4 beers a week, or 182 per year*, my annual beer habit necessitates 43,680L of water. That’s about twice the amount of water I use to shower each year (65L per day x 365 days = 23,753L)**.


In addition to water quantity concerns, brewing can have impacts on water quality. It is estimated that for each 1L of beer brewed, between 3-10L of effluent are released into waterways. Although wastewater from the brewing process is largely organic matter, and therefore not toxic, it can introduce nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen (e.g. from malts and cleaning agents) into waterways, and affect environmental indicators such as biological oxygen demand.


Despite the water challenges posed by the brewing industry, there is a lot of fantastic work being done, particularly by craft breweries, to conserve and protect freshwater in Canada. So you can ease your environmental conscience this St. Patrick’s Day if you should choose to indulge in your favourite fizzy libation.


Ontario: Less input, cleaner output


In Ontario, the Ontario Craft Brewers--an association representing over 70 craft brewers in the province, have teamed up with the Bloom Centre for Sustainability to make brewing less impactful on our waterways. The program, called Water & Beer, helps craft brewers by giving advice and techniques on water conservation, wastewater management, and more.


The Water & Beer website is very easy to navigate and explains technical information in a very clear and straightforward way. Although it is not clear whether they have a plan for evaluating uptake and effectiveness of the program, the fact that Ontario Craft Brewers is a partner is pretty encouraging.


British Columbia: Cutting in back in Canada’s Craft Brew Capital


Craft beer is on the rise in Canada, and B.C. may just be its unofficial headquarters. Craft beer accounts for 15% of beer production in the western province (compared to 4% in Ontario).


The increase in breweries, however, may be partly responsible for a peak in commercial water use in Vancouver. Despite ambitious water conservation measures the city has put into place, commercial water use rose 10 per cent between 2013 and 2014.  Local officials have surmised some of that increase may be due to the craft beer boom. When it comes to the brewing process, it is not uncommon for breweries to use 20L of water to produce 1L of beer.


The City of Vancouver has asked breweries to cut back on water use, and local breweries are cooperating.


Cutting back might not be easy, but it is possible. For example, in Sorrento BC, an Irish-style microbrewery called Crannóg Ales Brewery uses less than than two litres of water for every litre of beer it brews. The water source for the brewery’s beer comes from the owners’ own well. With a source so source so close to home, it’s no surprise that these brewers are prudent with their water supply.  


Quebec: Anti-pipeline beer


In Quebec, 14 grassroots community groups teamed up with 10 microbreweries around the province to brew a limited session IPA. The beer, called Coule pas chez nous! (“Don’t flow here!”), is intended to raise awareness about the risks of the proposed Energy East pipeline to water courses throughout Quebec.


Good water quality is a preoccupation for brewers, as beer flavour is heavily influenced by the water source used in the brewing process. Clean water is particularly desirable, since treatment and filtration can affect the brewing process. For example, filtration can remove minerals from the water that facilitate the brewing process, and treatment with chlorine can kill important microbes. And of course, if water is contaminated, so too will be the beer.


Healthy water seems to have been quite front and centre for the brewers of Coule pas chez nous! William Garant from microbrewery La Barberie explained that “many breweries take their water from rivers, and Energy East would cross 860 rivers in Quebec alone. In case of a leak near a water intake where a microbrewery takes its water, production would shut down immediately. For those of us who have chosen to get involved in this campaign, that risk is intolerable.”


Supporting Freshwater


It’s heartening to see the growing awareness in brewing community of the pivotal importance of water. More and more, we are seeing craft brewers support community and charitable initiatives to protect freshwater and the life that depends on it (see for example Postmark’s new Salmon Lager, which will donate partial proceeds to the Pacific Salmon Foundation).


We sure hope that more brewers will continue to come on board as freshwater advocates. Because as much as I love a good brew, water is life.



*Conservative estimate

**Generous estimate